We operate in a business landscape driven by an obsession with youth. I should know. I used to work in the red-hot center of one of the most youth-oriented companies on the planet, Nickelodeon. Nickelodeon is part of the MTV Networks where even the unwritten code of dress and grooming and behavior has one non-negotiable axiom: no matter what kind of work you do, it is essential to come across as youthful, or at least not too square. I am convinced that one senior-executive colleague never achieved his full potential because he simply looked too much like a conservative banker. Translation: he looked old.
But at least he had a job. During the last decade, the number of unemployed older workers has increased 300 percent. Workers over 45 are also unemployed longer than younger workers. And federal age discrimination actions filed annually increased 66% between 1999 and 2011. But workplace age discrimination is very, very hard to prove. If you're looking for a new job and over 50, the answer is (probably) not to sue. It's to play the hand you've been dealt as best you can.
In this stressful market, with no guarantees of pensions or government safety nets taking care of us in our later years, and so with a need for all of us to keep productively working as long as possible, there are a few basic things I might suggest to help you cope.
Consider the industry.
An obsession with youth is not a phenomenon unique to a company like MTV Networks, focused on programming for people under 30. Digital technology, one of the world's fastest-growing and most lucrative sectors, is popular with consumers of all ages. Yet the Internet and software and consumer electronics industries are dominated by people under 40. According to Techies.com, the average age of a software developer in Silicon Valley is 24. So perhaps it's not surprising, as the National Academy of Sciences found, that "older workers in the technology sector are three times more likely to lose their jobs in layoffs or reductions in force than younger workers." And according to a survey by Network World magazine, only about one in eight tech managers 30 years old or younger had hired anyone over 40 during the previous year.
If you're aiming at a youth-dominated sector, know the odds. And know that job descriptions with language like "energetic" and "fast-paced" could be code words for "young."
Know your geography — both organizational and literal.
There can be striking, stereotypical regional differences, as I learned when I pretended to want to get back into corporate work — having let my natural gray hair grow out — as research for my book on aging. One of the headhunter-experts I talked to for that project was Ann Carlsen, a recruiter in telecommunications and technology based in Boulder, Colorado. She was bracingly blunt. In California companies, "people over 40 are out to pasture." And while they might not feel the same in, say, Connecticut, in any geography, she told me, if I were serious about re-entering the corporate world I should be prepared for a long and frustrating process. And this was before the recession. "At your age," she said, ravaging my (simulated) hopes for full-time re-entry into business, "You should be a consultant." In other words, according to Carlson, at 50 the only person I could work for was myself.
The organizational "geography" also matters — chief marketing officer versus chief financial officer. Older job-seekers have to ask themselves: Is competence or creativity the most important attribute to convey? And what signifiers are used to convey those qualities? For instance, would a woman with spiky orange hair land a COO job? Or would someone who looks like Meg Whitman get the gig as head of a record label? (No and no.)
Pat Mastandrea, the former COO of the British satellite channel SKY TV, is now head of The Cheyenne Group, a New York-based executive recruitment firm that specializes in placing top executives in media, entertainment and education companies. The pressure to be (or at least look) young, she said, is more important in certain job functions. "I had a candidate who was in sales, and one day she just woke up and looked around and realized that all of her colleagues were in their 30s and her clients were in their 20s and she was in her 50s and she realized that there was a disconnect and she had to change fields. Sales positions are not as accepting of the aging process."
Be aware of how you present yourself.
I asked Carlsen if she saw any basic differences in the kinds of candidates that different industries look for. "Across the board more companies are targeting younger demos, so they are focusing on hiring people whom they believe will think like the animal." Clients won't tell her straight out, of course, that one of her potential hires didn't get a particular job because they were too old. That would be against the law. "Instead, they'll say that the person just 'wasn't a good fit for the culture,'" or that "the person is 'over-qualified.'" Of course, "overqualified" can have real meaning — someone who'll be unhappy with the lack of challenge or authority — but it can also be code for a younger manager being uncomfortable at the prospect of managing someone older.
Mastandrea agrees that overt age discrimination is tough to spot. "Some clients aren't even aware of their aversions or know why they discriminate," she said. "They couldn't begin to articulate why [they think] someone wouldn't be 'a good fit.'" This lack of awareness is what makes age discrimination so tricky to police.
Nonetheless, Carlsen says she doesn't coach candidates on appearance before a job interview. She thinks that it's important that the client have a sense of the real candidate. However, if someone has been rejected a few times they "tend to figure it out themselves. Across the board they will color their hair if they get turned down." And did Carlsen think women's appearances were judged more harshly than men's? Duh. "The deck is even more stacked against older women. You've got to look like you've been working out. You need good shoes and accessories, and the tan. The men [who run companies] tend to dismiss older women as not relevant. If the job is in sales or any area with high visibility, the issue is further compounded. If you put two women up for the same sales job and one is blonde and hip and the other more dowdy there is never a doubt about how that will come out, regardless of the position or the company or the skill set."
There are internal and external issues that play into how "old" you read to others. Here are a few thoughts to address the easier-to-deal with external style issues:
- Stand up straight. Sounds simple. Sounds stupid. But trust me, nothing ages a person faster than poor posture.
- Get physically active. There's a reason politicians bound up the steps — fast movement makes people seem active and therefore younger.
- Conduct an image overview. Is your hair cut contemporary? Are your clothes dated? Don't try to be something you are not. That will read as fake — even pitiful. But if you've got 80s shoulder pads in your suits, rethink them.
- While my dream is that Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer and Nancy Pelosi will start letting their natural hair grow out, until that time, if you feel you must, dye your hair.
Assess your mental adaptability.
Now for the harder, internal barriers to seeming alert and youthful. The stereotype of an old person is someone resistant to change, slow to learn, less productive, and who will have fewer years in the organization to recoup any training costs. To counteract any of these negatives conduct a hard, cold, objective assessment. Do you think you in any way mirror this stereotype? If so, tease apart the issues one by one:
- If you feel intimidated by new technology, ask for help from someone outside the office. Experiment with new media — Twitter, Pinterest, your own Wordpress blog. The more you play, the more fluent you will be in the modern ways of the working world. No one needs to master all media expressions or technology platforms, but being conversant in the most popular ones will dispel the "out-of-it" stereotype. Build this into your schedule, just as you'd set aside time for other priorities.
- If your skills are rusty, enroll in a course to supplement your gaps.
- Network and meet young people. Spend time with them. You will learn something. And they will be glad to have your mentorship.
- While you don't need to know every new band or movie (the market is simply too fractured to keep up), it's a good idea to keep abreast of current culture. Publications like The Week or websites like HuffingtonPost are a starting place.
Is it possible to go too far? One former advertising executive and desperate-to-be-perceived-as-young contemporary of mine owns and operates a successful social networking consultancy. She says that her employees bought her slang flash cards so that in the Twitterverse she wouldn't come across as out of touch — i.e. old. Her staff introduce her to words and phrases such as "ThatshitCra" (short for "that shit's crazy") and they applaud her when she calls her car her "whip." While this seems extreme to me, in an age and a country where youth culture is the culture, trying to seem with-it at work can be seen as a necessity. Even if it makes me a little sad.
This post is part of the special series The New Rules for Getting a Job.